A Conversation with Teju Cole


Guest Post: Anderson Tepper

“Welcomers,” Teju Cole’s story in Tin House’s Winter Reading issue, gives you a sense of the sort of ground his fiction covers: Within the space of just a few pages, we learn the harrowing back stories of Saidu, a Liberian war refugee who is being held in a Queens detention facility, and Pierre, a Haitian “bootblack” wiling away his time in a Penn Station shoe-shine shop. Excerpted from Cole’s debut novel, Open City (out this February from Random House), “Welcomers” also gives a sense of the deft narrative skill that is sure to sweep up readers and critics alike (and draw comparisons to writers from Coetzee to Sebald). I met up with Cole, who’s completing a PhD in art history at Columbia University, at the Frick Museum in Manhattan last month, as a winter blizzard blanketed the city. Sitting beside the fountain in the museum’s central pavilion, we discussed the role art and culture—and the unseen characters of daily life, from taxi drivers to museum guards—play in his novel of a young German-Nigerian psychiatrist adrift in modern-day New York.

Anderson Tepper: Since we’re meeting here at the Frick, I thought I’d start by asking you about your art history background and how art and museums play a role in your book.

Teju Cole: Yes, well, I’m an art historian by training and by inclination, in the sense that even though I’ve studied it for many years I still also like it as an avocation. I’m working on a PhD, which got slowed down a little bit by writing fiction. And I’ve taught a lot of art history classes in the course of working on it. I also like to go to the museums often for my own pleasure.

The Frick itself doesn’t make an appearance in Open City, but I wanted to tell the story in a way that reflected the way a certain we live today—the experience of buying books, reading books, going to museums. I don’t believe that this is reflected very often in fiction. There almost seems to be an unwritten rule against bringing in other cultural experiences into a book: A book has to be about the story. But I wanted to say, well, this character, Julius, is just like us—he goes to the museum. So he goes to the American Folk Art Museum, which I’ve actually only been to once or twice. He goes to the museum as well when he’s in Brussels. Meanwhile, the Frick is somewhere I’ve been to more than a dozen times. So it wasn’t supposed to be an exact reflection of my own experiences, but rather the kind of experiences somebody like us might have. And I think in many places in the book I tried to slow things down to the point where I can give an account of what’s happening when a person is looking at something—not necessarily an art object, but some sort of object that is somehow removed in time. And there’s something that happens—not just aesthetically, but psychologically, too.

AT: Julius’s encounters with things, with cultural artifacts, is one part of the book. Another major part is his interaction with various people of New York and Brussels, who are often the sort of characters overlooked at first glance—African and Caribbean immigrants, shoeshine men, museum guards. Was it important for you to include their stories?

TC: Yes, it wasn’t just the story of immigrants that I wanted to tell, which is an important part of the book. But in some way, I’m concerned with the story of the disregarded, a category that immigrants overlap extensively with—the disregarded in the sense of the ignored, the invisible, but also in the sense of people whose sexuality might not be mainstream: somebody who’s gay, or female, or especially old, for example.

So I wanted to tell their stories, and I think there’s an art history connection to that as well. I’m doing a study now at Columbia of Breughel and he’s the kind of artist, I think, whose works reveal more the more you look at them. I think this is generally true of art—and it’s generally true of Old Master European paintings especially—that they were made to reveal more the more you look at them. I wanted to broach Julius’s encounters with people and places in that same way. Not simply to say, I went downtown and saw what was there. But rather: If you keep looking at a place, it begins to give you more. Or: If you have an encounter with another human being, in a sensitive way, you begin to get more.

AT: You’ve written somewhere, I believe, that you were concerned with following “the traces of the past” of New York City in this book.

TC: Precisely, and I was interested in following the idea that New York is not just what presents itself. New York has a way of advertising itself as perpetually new. It’s a shining city, very much in the present. But actually, it’s not really that much in the present. The street level frontage is in the present, but by the time you look up to the second floor you’re in the nineteenth century in almost any part of the city you go. It’s an old city and that oldness persists visually. And I think it also persists psychologically in the sense that the built environment predates most of us. We’re used to thinking that Europe is a historical space, but I think New York is a haunted historical space. It has its Native American history, its colonial history, black slavery, and on and on.

AT: How much academic research and digging did you need to do for the historical aspects of the book?

TC: Well, there was a particular problem I wanted to avoid getting into in writing Open City, which was I didn’t want it to read like a Wikipedia book—and there are such books!—where the research is worn very heavily. I wanted it to be something that could conceivably be passing through the mind of an admittedly acute and over-educated protagonist. So I didn’t want it to be top-heavy in its research; I wanted it to be allusive and to connect each particular thought to another, with a writer’s sleight-of-hand. And so for that reason, I actually ended up relying a lot more on what I was seeing and what I knew, with just little bits of research thrown in. I didn’t sit down and say I’m going to read about New York’s colonial history so that it’s correct—although there was a bit of fact-checking that happened afterwards.

Far more important than academic research, though, was making sure that the right kind of stories got into the book. So, for example, for the section on the waterfront and whaling, there’s a little about upstate and the Dutch presence there, there’s a little about Melville and Moby Dick, and then there’s a little about the monument that was made for police officers—not specifically having to do with 9/11, but for police officers who had died in the line of duty. Those might be three things that don’t obviously have a lot to do with each other, but for me the book is about threading things together. If I had done a lot of research about Melville and New York, for example, I might have felt the need to go on about that for ten pages, because if you know it you feel compelled to use it. I wanted to keep the book heterogeneous.

AT: Tell me about the European parts of the book—Julius’s extended, mostly aimless trip to Brussels, ostensibly in search of his estranged German mother—as well as the flashbacks to his childhood in Nigeria. How did these fit in with the novel’s overall framework?

TC: I conceived both of those parts with very specific purposes. With Nigeria, it had to do with memory, because one of the twin themes of the book is the history of place and the history of self—and the ways in which an obsession with the history of place or others can be an excuse for not fully confronting the history of self. So Julius is this sort of raconteur who wants to take you into his confidence and yet the whole time he is withholding about himself. There is so much he is trying not to tell. So that’s what the Nigeria section of the book was about.

As for Brussels, I was very much interested in the question of the double. You know, sometimes when you sit down to write you want to tell the kind of story you don’t often see. One story I don’t often see is that of two protagonists like Julius and Farouk, who runs the internet center in Brussels. They are very close in some of the things that trouble them and in their thinking—they’re close, but not really that close. I wanted to bring together two protagonists who are almost like mirror images of each other: they’re both of the Left, they’re both sensitive to the Third World and its historical suffering, and yet at the same time there’s this tussle going on between them. And then, in another way, I also wanted to create a sort of double for New York City, but not an obvious one. Not London, not Paris. I wanted to pick this eccentric double, Brussels, which actually was an open city during the war.

AT: And that’s where the book’s title comes from.

TC: Right, with New York being an open city, but not in an obvious way; and Brussels actually, historically, having been an open city. And both of them being spaces that are porous, in many ways, to invasion. In a sense, my novel is about the ferocity of New York, the way in which it’s open to all kinds of insurgency from within. This is the sort of close doubling that I was interested in; but fictionally that can be risky. Sometimes readers want it to be a lot clearer—what the contrast is, what the point is. But I wanted to say, Well, in life sometimes it’s closer than that. And it’s that small gap that interests me more.

AT: When you were just talking about Julius withholding about himself, it reminded me of the writer J.M. Coetzee, who is someone we also see Julius reading and thinking about in the book. Was Coetzee an influence on you, and were there other fictional models for Open City?

TC: Well, I hope I’ve gotten to the point were the influences on my work are numerous and multifarious enough that it doesn’t become the case that this book is seen as a direct homage. It’s not supposed to be an homage to anyone’s writing in particular, but, yes, Coetzee is a strong influence in the sense that his voice is very powerful. I think he has exquisite tonal control, which you can see in something like Disgrace. Elizabeth Costello, which is mentioned in Open City, is very interesting to me because of the freedom it takes with novelistic form. It’s far freer than my book is. I’m interested in writers who try to push what the novel is doing, and I think that some of the books that I was thinking about as I was writing this are much more adventurous with form than Open City is. Something like The Enigma of Arrival, by V.S. Naipaul, or The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald, or even The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin—which isn’t necessarily fiction but feels like fiction—these are books that convincingly inhabit the middle space between reportage, essay, and invention, very often with a strong first-person voice. These are the kind of influences that were playing at the back of my mind, as I wrestled with questions such as, for example, how do you explore stream of consciousness without getting into tedium—because that is always the risk. Or, in fact, how do you even explore tedium without being tedious. It’s a very specific challenge. I hope I succeeded even a little bit.

AT: You mentioned to me earlier that your next book, you think, will be a nonfiction work about Nigeria. So then you’re not wedded to the idea of only writing fiction, even though you conceived of Open City as a novel from the very beginning?

TC: Yes, absolutely, I wanted to write Open City as a work of fiction, and I definitely want to write another book of fiction. I hope that my next novel will be even more adventurous than this one, and I hope that my nonfiction is something that will read novelistically as well. I don’t want the two practices to be very far from each other. John Berger is a writer I admire greatly and I like the way he confounds the different categories in his work. Because I think that what we care about, finally, is whether an author can create a world that we want to inhabit. And maybe this also has to do with art. As we go through the museum, we don’t look at a painting—say, a Vermeer—and say: “I wonder, Is this fiction or nonfiction?” What we say is: “Is this a sensitively and convincingly evoked world?” That’s all we care about: Is this a world I want to spend some time in?

Anderson Tepper’s interview with Nuruddin Farah appeared in Tin House 32. His conversation with Ben Okri will appear in Tin House’s Summer 2011 issue.